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On Schumacher’s Shoulders

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Ahead of the Big One series of events planned for the weekend of the 24th April by over 200 organisations around citizens’ participation and climate emergency, William Temple Trustee Lois Tarbet reflects on EF Schumacher’s big and beautiful advice for gaining insight into the prospects for climate change following the IPCC’s most recent report.

Climate ticking time-bomb

On 20 March, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released the final instalment of its Sixth Assessment Report (AR6). AR6, developed with hundreds of scientists over a period of eight years, represents the most comprehensive and authoritative assessment of climate science.  The media has extracted headlines from AR6 telling of irreversible changes to the planet, a ticking climate time-bomb, inevitable catastrophic impacts from climate change and a final warning for drastic action to be taken now or never. There are also more hopeful messages about the mix of strategies and systemwide transformations that could help to limit global warming, albeit that a quantum leap will be needed for those strategies to succeed.

Climate status and stock-take

Summaries of the 1000+ page AR6 are offered by the World Resources Institute, the Guardian, Carbon Brief and others. They report that temperatures have risen faster since 1970 than in any other 50-year period over the last 2,000 years, that global surface temperatures are now 1.1C higher than during the preindustrial era and that observed increases in greenhouse gas (GHG) concentrations since around 1750 are unequivocally caused by GHG emissions from human activities. With high or very high confidence, AR6 authors report that, amongst other things, climate change has caused irreversible losses and mass mortality events in ecosystems and species on land and at sea.

Climate outlook

The outlook in AR6 is grim. However, it also sets out how net zero CO2 and GHG emissions can be achieved through strong reductions across all sectors. We can choose to make it less grim and there are multiple strategies that could be used, but will we? History suggests not. In its’ 2018 report, the IPCC warned that in order to limit warming to 1.50C, GHG emissions would have to be halved by 2030 compared with 2010. However, the IEA reports that carbon emissions rose last year by just under 1%.  

Climate procrastination

When I attended my first climate conference in 2009 in Copenhagen, the media reported that climate scientists were “screaming from the rooftops” to be heard. Over a decade later, a Nasa climate scientist, weeping with frustration, begged the public to believe that scientists are not exaggerating when they say we stand to lose everything. Although progress has been made, we still appear to procrastinate – why?

Climate signals

Are the signals from AR6 not dire enough to prompt action – or are they too extreme to be believed? Is talk of 1 or 2 degrees of warming at variance with the scale of the damage such seemingly small temperature increases will cause? Are decision-makers too far away from sinking small island states to feel their peril? Are humans hard-wired to ignore accumulating evidence or are human institutions incapable of understanding signals from natural systems? Are we locked into the existing economic and societal paradigm? Are we focussing too much on solutions rather than insights?

Climate “solutions”

AR6 might generate feelings of hopelessness in some. But this must be balanced against the plethora of proposed solutions offered by scientists, economists, religious leaders, technicians, lawyers and politicians. From geoengineering and circular economics to calls for behavioural and cultural change there is a cornucopia of ideas to unlock climate action. But all are dogged by varying degrees of uncertainty as to whether they, alone or in concert, will achieve the desired outcomes and this can hamper their uptake or testing.

Climate wisdom

Many solutions are developed with a view to seeking objective answers, proof and results. However, in Small Is Beautiful, EF Schumacher warned against over-reliance on solutions and on allowing cleverness to displace wisdom. Wisdom he says “demands a new orientation of science and technology towards the organic, the gentle, the non-violent, the elegant and beautiful…” Science and technology must exercise the wisdom to limit itself like nature, which knows where and when to stop – nature is self-balancing, self-adjusting and self-cleansing.

Climate calm

While the noise of proposed climate solutions, reports, agreements and political wranglings reverberates, the earth (as Thomas Berry says) is silently keeping an accurate record of our climate folly in its rocks, systems, stores and sinks. Wisdom says Schumacher is to be found not in noise, but in the stillness inside ourselves, from which insights beyond our reasoning powers emerge. Schumacher asks whether we need more than a simple act of insight to realise that infinite growth of material consumption in a finite world is an impossibility or whether we need numbers, trends, feedback loops, masses of facts and computer results to tell us that time is short.


AR6 is full of humbling and terrifying facts, knowledge, numbers and proposals which will hopefully inform future climate-positive policy, scientific, economic, technological and cultural decisions. However, if they are to stand on Schumacher’s shoulders, those decisions must not be based on cleverness alone, but also on the “beyond reason” insights of wisdom borne from stillness.

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